Lives of the fellows

Norman Eric Parker

b.16 October 1949 d.16 April 2016
BSc Lond(1971) MB BS(1974) MRCP(1976) MRCPath(1981) FRCPath(1992) FRCP(1993)

Norman Parker was a consultant haematologist and medical director at the Whittington Hospital, London. He was born on the Isle of Wight, the eldest of herdsman Eric and former Land Girl Maud’s six children. Teachers at Carisbrooke Grammar School and his talent-spotting GP persuaded the sceptical Eric to allow his son to stay on to do A-levels and apply to university, but his place on a full grant at University College London was in peril when Norman realised that much of the biology syllabus had been inadvertently omitted by his school. His cat Sue-Puss kindly brought in a vole for dissection the week before the examination and on the day he used his memory of Lake District vegetation from a geography trip to contrast with his own knowledge of plants on the Isle of Wight. Intelligent integration of knowledge from diverse sources became a characteristic of Norman’s clinical practice and made him a sought-after colleague when dealing with diagnostic conundrums!

Alphabetical allocation ensured that he met his future wife Angela Penn on his first day at University College London. Both were awarded Medical Research Council funding for an intercalated BSc degree. The highlight of this was assisting the renowned biologist J Z Young with his ‘octopus memory’ research in Naples.

With honours in pathology and surgery, Norman graduated among the top students in London in 1974 and was awarded the Lucy Chaplin memorial prize in haematology. In 1976, he gained his MRCP. Choosing clinical haematology because he reasoned it subsumed most other specialties, he saw all admissions as fair game. He kept a careful eye on samples going through the lab and would indulge his competitive instincts in pursuit of swift, accurate diagnoses.

After a brief exposure to pure research, he jumped at the chance to go to Cape Town to learn bone marrow transplant techniques. He enjoyed being visiting physician to the small towns along the coast and loved the challenge of diagnostic options posed by the diverse population at Groote Schuur Hospital. In the lab ‘routine’ work was more than a week behind, but by the end of the year laboratory pride in doing ‘today’s work today’ was firmly established. This experience of leadership and change management proved useful for the rest of his career.

He was appointed as a locum consultant at the Whittington Hospital in north London in July 1981 at the age of 32, and took the substantive post in September 1982. Excellent clinical skills, which he loved to teach, were supported by his ability to generate enthusiasm among laboratory scientific staff, who would provide astonishing turnaround times. Incentivised by bottles of champagne for particularly splendid diagnoses or correct interpretation in rare or challenging situations, ‘the labs’ became an integral part of the wider hospital care team, contributing significantly to patient safety at the Whittington by their vigilance and initiative.

He would enlist help from patients with clinical signs to teach clinical skills such as feeling the spleen, used his own drastically low blood pressure to teach the importance of recording the truth and engaged patients in clinic to pass on the reality of living with long-term conditions to medical students.

The emergence of HIV/AIDS shaped his early consultant career. Before antiretrovirals, he worked with the Foundation for Aids Counselling Treatment and Support (FACTS), a Crouch End based charity seeking to provide those living with HIV with the best information on lifestyle, diet, exercise and alternative therapies to promote immunity and cope with stress. He developed a deep respect for patient-led research and information sharing. He joined the Nutrition Society, adding advice about diet to consultations. He was adept at eliciting the truth from those whose love of fruit and vegetables did not tally with clinical scurvy or blood count abnormalities.

As an examiner for the Royal College of Physicians from 1999 and a member and then secretary of the part two board from 2008 to 2012, Norman strove to maintain standards and was always delighted when his questions were once again the discriminating ones in the exam. Excellent organisational skills enabled him to maintain his highly regarded full-time clinical service with the medical director role at the Whittington Hospital. He promoted the role of the patient in good care, dictating letters with the patient present, running a Saturday clinic and a weekend ward round. Identifying consultants and teams who were subject to repeated complaints, the reputation of his own acute service meant that support and training offers were accepted. Problems often arose due to poor communication skills. With Jane Dacre he set up the first PACES (practical assessment of clinical examination skills) course.

He was medical adviser to the Sickle Cell Society. He delighted in finding role models for successful lives with sickle, and destigmatised and changed attitudes among the patients and families he served. He gathered a team, including psychologists, to help promote coping strategies. He used the IT system to alert the haematology department when a sickle cell patient arrived in casualty, ensuring personalised protocols for pain management were correctly applied. Unusual presentations were also rapidly and correctly diagnosed. Incentivising behavioural change (a bottle of champagne for a year with no admissions!) with tailored care from their committed team brought inpatient bed days down from 1,945 to 789 over an eight-year period during which patient numbers increased. His whole-life approach to this complex long term condition meant maintaining a haematology presence in antenatal clinic with the obstetricians, weekly paediatric ward rounds and seamless transition to adult services. Real continuity of care kept the patient at the centre and had a positive transformational impact on lives and clinical outcomes.

He was a member of the 2008 NCEPOD (National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death) investigation, which sought to set out issues for much-needed improvement in care nationwide for the sickle population (Sickle: a sickle crisis? A report of the National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death London, NCEPOD, 2008).

Outside medicine, he had a lifelong enthusiasm for travelling, engendered by his trip as a student across the Continent to Naples. He took his family on meticulously researched trips to see unspoilt or endangered parts of the world, booking his next holiday immediately upon return. He loved taking his parents, who had never been off the Isle of Wight before their retirement, on interesting journeys. Several years were taken up by trips to collect breeds of cow for his Dad in alphabetical order, Aubrac, Buffalo, Cyprus, Dexter, Egyptian... . He managed to take Christmases off for his entire career, so he got to the Island for family gatherings, often on the last boat on Christmas Eve having listened to John Rutter’s ‘Brother Heinrich’s Christmas’ and carols from King’s in the car.

Norman was a splendid husband, father and grandfather. He and Angela married in 1972 and they had two daughters, Zine and Phillipa, who are both doctors, and three grandchildren, James, Rowena and Tamara. Norman died of chronic heart failure due to ventricular non-compaction cardiomyopathy, possibly due to a unique gene mutation. Many of his patients attended his funeral. Of course, he had written precise instructions and his farewell address contained special thoughts for them on the doctor-patient relationship: ‘Over the years I have had many patients; how privileged I was to have had such a close working relationship with them. It would be invidious to name individuals, but as I treated and taught patients so they taught me, making my job fun. I was notorious for offering dietary advice, which did bring benefits and significantly improved the outcome for some. If there are any patients here today tell them I have requested fruit be left in my coffin. I suspect it will not benefit me in my present state but I have always been a bit of an optimist.’

The Parker family

[The Sickle Cell Society In loving memory of Dr Norman Parker April 19, 2016 – accessed 25 September 2017; Islington Tribune 6 May 2016 – accessed 25 September 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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